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Dark Watchet or Iron Blue Dun (Edmonds & Lee Pattern 13a)

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I got a little carried away with this one. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.


As trout begin to panic for a small, smokey blue mayfly hatching on a cloudy spring day, this North Country wet whispers from ages past, “twitch me upstream along that undercut bank.”

The notorious dark patch of blue has inspired anglers for over three hundred years, first in Britain as a baetis swimmer and later in America as a lepto crawler.


photo credit: https://www.first-nature.com/insects/e-alainites-muticus.php


photo credit: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/227004-Paraleptophlebia-mollis


photo credit: http://www.troutnut.com/specimen/683

To say you are tying a dark watchet tells almost nothing about how it will be tied, what materials will be used, or even what color silk.  As Mary Orvis Marbury commented in 1892, “there seems no end to the names applied and the endeavors to imitate it correctly.”

Here is one pattern, as recommended by Edmonds & Lee in Brook and River Trouting, a Manual of North Country Methods (1916):



Here is that finished fly as illustrated in Edmonds’ book (enlarged):


Note the extra-long hackles, the haze of dubbing, the clear separation of colors on the body, and the orange head.

Here is an enlargement of Edmond & Lee’s jackdaw hackle illustration:


Here is a patch of natural mole. Note the fine, long iron-gray fibers with reddish brown tips.


For general tying methods, Edmonds and Lee deferred completely to H.G. McClelland’s The Trout Fly Dresser’s Cabinet of Devices, or How to Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing (1898), as “the most practical and exhaustive treatise on the subject known to the writers.”  Preston Jennings continued that advice in 1935, stating “in it will be found all the fundamentals for tying both wet- and dry-flies.” So for tying the 1916 Edmonds & Lee recipe, I will be using McClelland’s general wet fly tying methods, circa 1898 to 1935.

A few minor variances worth noting:

First, I used my regular tools. Here are the tools McClelland recommended:


Note there’s no bobbin and no whip finisher.

Second, I used my modern vise, which has a rotating jaw. McClelland recommended for amateur tyers to purchase the following vise, together with a rubber disk device of his own invention for holding the tying silk taut in between tying steps. (Remember, the bobbin had not yet been invented.)


Note the lack of any rotary function. Also note that professional tyers in McClelland’s day tied in hand and did not generally use a vise at all.

Third, I used artificial LED lighting and 5.0 readers. Without artificial lighting readily available, McClelland recommended tying with your back to the window, not facing it, and arranging white or light-colored objects around the vise to reflect diffuse sunlight back to the fly from a variety of directions. McClelland even recommended wearing a white apron and recommended placing white paper behind the fly for smaller hooks and for tyers with impaired vision. 

Fourth, I used an eyed hook. Although McClelland said dry flies “almost invariably” were tied on eyed hooks, in 1898 the general practice was still to use blind eye hooks for wet flies, with catapillar gut secured along the bottom of the shank as the first tying step. Edmonds and Lee also show a blind eye hook in their 1916 illustrations. 

As to other features of the best hook, McClelland concluded “there is no hook in use so vicious in construction but that something may be said in its favour.” His personal preference was for a sneck and Kirby bend, and of eyed hooks those manufactured at the time by Mr. Pennell and Mr. Hall:


I have used a Mustad sneck hook, model 3351, which was manufactured in Norway some time between 1930 and 1970. It is a down-eye hook with a sneck bend and a kirbed point, but a straight (not upturned) shank.



In terms of hook size, the recipe calls for a 0 or 00 hook. This translates roughly to a modern 16 or 18. In the Mustad model I’m using, a 14 translates roughly to a modern 18.

The recipe calls for Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, Nos. 6a and 8. There is only one shade of purple (8), but in 1916 here were the three shades of Pearsall’s orange


Because Pearsall’s has never labeled their spools, second-hand users such as myself are forced to eyeball it. As with much in life, best efforts will have to do.


Though there is an argument for not waxing this silk in order to maintain its translucent quality, Edmonds and Lee were very clear to use a transparent wax:


Interestingly, McClelland recommended a liquid form of transparent wax, commenting, “In the matter of wax every fly dresser appears to be something of a faddist, and, from what I have written, it may be inferred that I do not claim to be an exception.” For any adventurous waxers among us, McClelland recipe was one part rosin to one part turpentine, heated together in a double boiler and stored in collapsible tubes of the sort used for oil paints. I’m using a solid wax, Keene’s white wax ($5 from Gunpowder Custom Tackle), from a competing recipe of the same time period. It also uses white rosin, but instead of turpentine adds beeswax and lard in the double boiler, which as it cools is then pulled like taffy. It is nothing like a modern dubbing wax or even pure beeswax. The magic of it is in the rosin.

Tying Steps

Although a North Country soft hackle is a relatively simple fly to tie, there are more than a few quirks here – some having to do with McClelland’s methods and others having to do with the peculiar body of this particular recipe.


Note that for this SBS I am using a bobbin. McClelland did not. He cut 10” of silk off the spool and wrapped it with his fingers, bobbin-free. Between steps he held the silk taut by wrapping it around a rubber disk held at the base of his vise with a device of his own invention.  Halford (1910) saw no need to keep the silk taut, and found that tying wax alone kept the fly together between steps, even if placed in a drawer for long periods. I have tied this fly without a bobbin, just not here; it’s a far more tactile experience than tying with a bobbin, well worth trying if you have never done it.


With steps one and two, we already see something interesting. McClelland began his wet flies with six turns to the left, and then six turns back to the right. He did not explain why, but this results in a small tapered underbody in the fashion of a slightly thicker thorax than most North Country fly tyers tie today.

McClelland also does not tie in the hackle at the beginning, as many do today. He leaves that for the end. This again results in a thicker taper at front of the thorax, and also a thicker head.


McClelland’s methods do not include instructions for tying a body using two different colors of thread. If the purple silk were a rib, McClelland instructs for it to be tied in with two wraps at the bend. But Edmonds and Lee are clear that the purple silk is not a rib, and instead that the orange and purple silk are “twisted together” with the mole dubbing to make the body. Accordingly, I have incorporated the purple silk into the silk thread underbody immediately after the tie-in. I also have pre-waxed the purple silk, as McClelland (and Edmonds and Lee) instructs us to do for tying silk generally.

Other alternatives are possible, of course. One could tie the purple silk in with two wraps at the bend; that would result in a thinner abdomen but would create a bump at the bend. One could tie the purple silk in at the beginning of the tie-in after step two, instead of at the end of the tie-in as I have done in step three; that would lead to a larger taper. One could also tie in the purple silk at the very beginning and wrap it around the hook together with the orange from the start; that would create a multi-colored underbody.


McClelland instructs for tail and rib and body materials to be captured at the top of the hook, one after the other. This is why I tied the purple silk in along the top of the shank.


Edmonds and Lee instruct that the orange and purple silk, twisted together, are to be “dubbed very sparingly.” McClelland instructs for dubbing to be twisted onto the tying silk in the same direction as it is wound around the hook.  To my mind, there are three possible interpetations. One is to first twist the two silks together and then sparsely dub that twisted pair; another is to first hold the two silks together untwisted, and then twist them together along with a sparse amount of dubbing; a third is to first sparsely dub the orange tying silk and then twist the two silks together. I chose the last of these interpretations. It helps secure the sparse dubbing against the hook shank as the body material is wrapped forward on the hook, and it helps gauge the amount of dubbing to apply to be able to see the orange silk through it.

Note that Hans Weilenmann applies a split dubbing technique on the orange silk alone, twists only that silk thread, and does not twist the orange and purple silks together at all. To my mind, that is a method that improves on the instructions of Edmonds and Lee, if you can split the Pearsall’s Gossamer. (I struggle with that.) Roger Smith dubs the purple silk before twisting, and instructs that the orange silk must not be dubbed. I’m not sure why he says that. Dubbing the orange tying silk directly, instead of the purple, helps make certain the mole is dubbed sparingly enough that it doesn’t obscure the orange color when the body is wrapped.


By loosely twisting the silks together clockwise, the silks can fully untwist (while still trapping the mole fur) in forming the body as they are wound together clockwise around the hook shank. That is the only way I could figure Edmonds and Lee’s otherwise confusing instruction both for the silks to be “twisted together” and for them to be “wound on the body so that the orange and purple show in alternate bands.”


It is important not to wrap the two loosely twisted silks too close together along the hook shank, or the purple silk will obscure the orange and the alternate color bands will not show. Wrapping them up the hook shank in more open turns helps keep the color bands separate. The mole fur pokes out freely between the orange and purple silks, and is primarily captured in the tight, waxed bond between those two banded silks and the orange underbody as the twisted, dubbed silks are wrapped around the hook shank.


McClelland instructs us to wrap two turns rightward over the body material (here it is just the purple silk), and then up to the eye and back to the tie-in. He does not explain why, but it does provide a smooth, sloped foundation for the hackle.


This tie-in is different than what is in fashion today, coming up from the bottom rather than down from the top or along the shank and over the the eye. Here is McClelland’s illustration of this step (note, our fly has no tail or wing):


McClelland does not dictate the proper length for a wet-fly hackle, nor do Edmonds and Lee. McClelland states only, “Now prepare a hackle of suitable length of fibre, by stripping off the down on either side of the root end of the quill.”

As noted briefly above, the illustration by Edmonds & Lee shows a longer hackle than what is currently in fashion. Theirs is around 4x gape or 2x shank. Here’s another blow-up of their illustration, this time with my rough measurements:


The throat hackle on my jackdaw skin is not as long as that illustrated, compared to the hook I am using. Perhaps a modern size 18 hook is too big for this fly, or perhaps my jackdaw hackles are too small. Or perhaps it’s fine as is.


I wrapped two turns of hackle, not three, to abide by Pritt’s primary tying directive in North Country Flies (1886) that “the flies for Yorkshire rivers . . . cannot well be dressed too sparingly in the matter of feather." The instruction to wrap the hackle alternately in front of and behind the hanging silk is McClelland’s. He does not explain, but by doing this you end up protecting the hackle wraps with the tying silk.

Capturing the hackle tip with it angled down also is McClelland’s instruction, which is the opposite of what I am used to doing and seeing done. Here is McClelland’s illustration:




Per McClelland, “four turns of the tying silk are sufficient” for a whip finish. Doing it by hand was a challenge for me. I’m going back to my whip finishing tool.

For varnish, McClelland recommended either coachbuilders’ copal varnish, which takes 24 hours to harden properly, or shellac varnish, “made by dissolving orange shellac in rectified spirits of wine,” which he says  will dry almost instantly. He recommended applying the varnish with a tiny sable hair brush, but also approved using a dubbing needle or a sharpened match stick. I’m using Sally Hanson’s hard as nails, after removing all but a few of the fibers from the brush that comes with the bottle.

Interestingly, McClelland recommended that tyers spread out the hackle of their fly “fore and aft and on either side” before fishing it:


And there you have it. The historic yet still relevant little dark watchet, tied to imitate hatches of the namesake fly in England and America, using recipe 13A of Edmonds and Lee’s Brook and River Trouting, substantially in accord with the materials and methods they recommended at the time of publication in 1916.


A parting close-up above, and below a parting glimpse of the famous hatch as described in A Book on Angling, by Francis Francis in 1876:




[. . . .]



FURTHER READING with free hyperlinks

North Country Fly Fishing and Fly Tying:

Harfield Edmonds & Norman Lee, Brook and River Trouting (1916) (Pattern 13A is the Dark Watchet or Iron Blue Dun) https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t43r12n1m?urlappend=%3Bseq=35

 T.E. Pritt, North Country Flies (1886) (Patterns 18 to 21 are the Dark Watchet) https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hwg1p9?urlappend=%3Bseq=53%3Bownerid=27021597767182069-57

 Andrew Herd, The North Country Method (2016) (which also references several modern books in print) https://www.54deanstreet.it/blog/blog-1/post/the-north-country-method-9

 Other patterns for the dark watchet or iron blue dun:

James Chetham, Angler’s Vade Mecum (1681) – It is often repeated on the internet that Chetham was the first to include a pattern for the little dark watchet, which he allegedly called the little blue dun. However, I could not find that fly in the text of Angler’s Vade Mecum that is available online. Maybe you can?  https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A32790.0001.001/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

Charles Bowlker, The Art of Angling (1766) – The Little Iron Blue Fly  https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433067377279?urlappend=%3Bseq=142%3Bownerid=9007199255764291-150

Mary Orvis Marbury, Favorite Flies and Their Histories (1892) – Pattern 158, Plate Q, the Iron Blue Dun or Little Dark Watchet  https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hn5zjc?urlappend=%3Bseq=444%3Bownerid=27021597765256213-430

James Leisenring (as told to V.S. Hidy), The Art of Tying the Wet Fly (1941) – The Iron Blue Wingless  https://hdl.handle.net/2027/coo.31924068965494?urlappend=%3Bseq=113%3Bownerid=27021597767354547-117

G.E.M. Skues, The Way of a Trout with a Fly (1921) – the Iron Blue  https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101064793720?urlappend=%3Bseq=128%3Bownerid=27021597765767625-134

Sylvester Nemes, The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles (2005) – his tiny version of Pritt’s little dark watchet (abbreviated text via hyperlink)  https://books.google.com/books?id=TcKOshXME9MC&pg=PA147&lpg=PA147&dq=google+books+sylvester+nemes+watchet&source=bl&ots=4l13Lc4YMY&sig=ACfU3U3q_Hr4SF6r4PUMygwydGgpaZCV6g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjVt_79hdv3AhUwIkQIHToCDKYQ6AF6BAgPEAM#v=onepage&q=google%20books%20sylvester%20nemes%20watchet&f=false

Tying Methods (includes some additional patterns):

H.G. McClelland, The Trout Fly Dresser’s Cabinet of Devices or How To Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing (1899)


Hans Weilenmann, The Dark Watchet tying video


Dr. Alex Ties, Tying the Dark Watchet Spider tying video


Martyn White, Flicking Feathers Presents the Dark Watchet tying video


Robert Smith, the Dark Watchet tying video


Davie McPhail, Tying the Iron Blue Soft Hackle tying video


Robert Culver, Dark Watchet photo (by H. Weilenmann) and recipe http://www.flytierspage.com/rculver/dark_watchet.htm

Neil’s Online Soft Hackle Pattern Book (Soft Hackles, Tight Lines) on the Iron Blue  http://softhacklepatternbook.blogspot.com/2013/11/iron-blue-nymph-flymph-and-little-dark.html

The Hatch:

Francis Francis, A Book on Angling (1867) – the Little Iron-blue Dun


Ernest Scwiebert, Nymphs (1975) (describing the American counterpart hatch, P. mollis) (abbreviated text via hyperlink)  https://books.google.com/books?id=N-HVCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA368&lpg=PA368&dq=ernest+schwiebert+nymphs+mollis+google+books&source=bl&ots=iusQZSJW6p&sig=ACfU3U2SOpgQwNVo-xsBOcu1wtIpmCoSHA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjMmMPm0ID4AhU0j2oFHcIlD1MQ6AF6BAgWEAM#v=onepage&q=ernest schwiebert nymphs mollis google books&f=false

(The link is to the 2007 edition)

Knopp & Cormier, Mayflies (1999) (concluding P. mollis does not have a significant hatch, but addressing the related and significant blue quill hatch of N. adoptiva) (abbreviated text via hyperlink)  https://www.google.com/books/edition/Mayflies/uosOAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=knopp+cormier+mayflies+adoptiva+google+books&dq=knopp+cormier+mayflies+adoptiva+google+books&printsec=frontcover





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Great info ,presentation and fly but after seeing the picture of the mole I don’t think I have the heart

to tie this fly.  In fact I’m thinking of giving away all my natural materials.☹️

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I tie and fish this fly frequently.  It does well for me year round in spring creeks, in spite of the lack of iron blue duns, or even blue quills.  I've theorized that it gets taken for a cress bug.

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11 hours ago, Moshup said:

picture of the mole

Pritt's 18 calls for down from a water rat...


8 hours ago, redietz said:

I tie and fish this fly frequently.  It does well for me year round in spring creeks, in spite of the lack of iron blue duns, or even blue quills.  I've theorized that it gets taken for a cress bug.



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26 minutes ago, chugbug27 said:

Pritt's 18 calls for down from a water rat...

Edmonds & Lee substituted  mole for water rat in every fly that appeared in both (and that Pritt called for water rat.)  I think The Wind in the Willows had something to do with that; water rats had become beloved and moles were still seen as vermin.  

The water "rat" is actually a vole, as is the muskrat on this side of the Atlantic.  The latter makes an acceptable sub for the former if you don't have mole handy.

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49 minutes ago, redietz said:

Edmonds & Lee substituted  mole for water rat in every fly that appeared in both (and that Pritt called for water rat.) 


I hadn't noticed that. I had only seen that two of the three other dark Watchet patterns Pritt published called for mole.


58 minutes ago, redietz said:

muskrat on this side of the Atlantic

Great info, thanks. Here's a muskrat, definitely see the resemblance 


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This was my present from the red tail last week.


ChugBug27 you have definitely been drinking the soft hackle Kool-Aid.  Then again who

am I to talk.


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This is a wonderful article on tying old dressings with modern materials. This is one I’m going to save and print. 
thank you


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